Sunday, 14 November 2010

Nature Rules, Not Monsanto

This is my comic that I submitted to the Comics Contest as part of the Positive Visions for Biodiversity (16-19 November 2010) in Brussels, Belgium. It’s a little hard to see here, but a better view can be had by clicking it.  I would like to take this opportunity to fill in the details of my comic.

Because of the complexity of the tree-top that is full of sequences of letters and numbers, I will come back to it at the end.

The first box shows a boy and girl sitting on a sofa in the living room watching the global news broadcast where they learn that “following the recent trend, Monsanto has gone into liquidation today...” There is also a ladybird at the side of the sofa watching as well. The sequences in the tree-top all have to do with Monsanto’s products except for one, which I explain below.

In the next box, we see the boy and girl standing in the hallway about to go out. The boy says “I learned that Monsanto was very bad for biodiversity in my ‘Keep it Natural Science Class.” A spider is crawling up his web on the ceiling at the right to a bug that is caught at the top. The boy’s statement shows that his school is independent and able to teach him about a negative side of the market and not just ignoring it or promoting corporate activities. And finally, his science class is concerned with nature.

Moving down to the third box, the children are walking down the street. There are no cars in sight, only someone on a bicycle. And there are lots of trees and plants all around. The boy then says “And I’ve got to grow 5 food plants in the garden this summer”. One of my positive visions for the future is for every child to have the opportunity to grow plants that can be eaten, whether in a garden at home, school or in the community. If I had another box, I would have added that he had to cook a dish with the plants for a cookery class because I believe every child should learn to cook at school too.

In the final box, the two children have reached their destination, a nearby park. The girl says “That’s easy, I’ve got to draw 5 different types of bee for my art class”. This education will not only teach her about creative expression, but focus attention on the detail and differences between life forms even of the same species. She says that the boy’s task is easy compared to hers because she may struggle to find 5 different types of bee living in her neighbourhood, but also because of the challenge to show the small differences between the bees in a drawing. There’s a bee in the bottom of this box winking.

So now to the tree with the smiling worm under it ...

The tree represents the tree of life. The one thing in the tree that does not relate to Monsanto’s products is OWL with the eyes above, which represents an owl! The owl is a symbolic creature which among other things means wisdom, although since I originally wrote this article, I have learned that the owl is more often the symbol of such things as death, destruction, bad omens, and dark powers.  Very fitting even if I wasn't aware of it at the time (strange coincidence).  But anyway, what of the rest? Here’s the scoop:

Monsanto was established in 1901 in St Louis, Missouri where it still has its headquarters. It began with the manufacture of saccharin and then vanillin and caffeine, which it supplied to Coca-Cola. Monsanto next became the largest American producer of aspirin up until the 1980s. With its first acquisition in 1918, it took on a company that made sulfuric acid, a strong mineral acid with the molecular formula H2SO4 which was the start of a shift to industrial products.

According to its website, it is now located in 82 countries, has approximately 22,000 regular employees and sells seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals “to support farmers.” The company appears to have grown quite a bit over the last three years because the 2007 statistics from The World According to Monsanto by Marie-Monique Robin (2010) show 17,500 employees in 46 countries (p. 3). By looking at the Company’s history on its website, one can see how it has grown through recent acquisitions.

Perhaps the most noteworthy part of its history is its merger in 2000 with Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc., creating a company that, for the moment had a market cap of more than $50 billion.

Despite its growth and size, Monsanto has seen its stocks dip recently from the high in mid-2008 of $140 per share to $47 in October 2010. But whether or not this is a sign that my positive vision of the company going into liquidation will come true, only time will tell.

Monsanto is a controversial company for many reasons. Besides its relentless growth strategy, controversial products and hard-nosed business tactics, perhaps the most noteworthy fact is that the company owns 90 percent of all patented seeds.

The company’s slogan is “Food, Health, and Hope.” Regardless of its slogan, profit is its raison d’ĂȘtre and some of its nefarious products (or means of making profit), past and present are described below with reference to the symbols and acronyms in my comic’s tree top.


PCBs, C12H10-xClx, CAS number 1336-36-3, polychlorinated biphenyls are a class of organic compounds with 1 to 10 chlorine atoms attached to biphenyl, which is a molecule composed of two benzene rings. “[T]hey were used as coolants in electric transformers, in industrial hydraulic machines but also as lubricants in applications as varied as plastics, paint, ink, and paper” (Robin, p.11).

Robin relates the story of how Monsanto knew that PCBs presented a serious health risk as early as 1937, but continued to manufacture and market PCBs until the ban in 1977 (Chapter 1). A Swedish scientist, Soren Jensen did research in 1966 which showed that PCBs "bioaccumulate along the food chain." PCBs were said to be equally poisonous to DDT, which was also manufactured by Monsanto on a large scale (and should be in the tree top too).

TCDD, C12H4Cl4O2. or 2,3,7,8- is, according to Green Facts “one of the most potent toxic dioxins and used as a reference for all other dioxins. 1,2,3,7,8-Pentachlorodibenzodioxin is of a similar potency, while the other members of the subset are 10–10,000 times less toxic.” This molecule is a pure product of industrial activity which has been synthetically reproduced and used to produce insecticides such as 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D).

Monsanto began manufacturing 2,4,5-T in 1948 in Nitro, West Virginia (Robin, p.36). Monsanto also manufactured Agent Orange, the most toxic chemical weapon used in the Vietnam War by the United States. It was introduced in 1965 and made of half 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (Robin, p.41).

C3H3NO5P is the chemical formulation for glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide called Roundup. It destroys all forms of vegetation. The plants absorb the chemical through the leaves which is carried by the sap to the roots and rhizomes where it inhibits an enzyme essential for the synthesizing of aromatic amino acids. This leads to a decrease in the activity of chlorophyll as well as of certain enzymes, which causes the necrosis of tissue and leads to the death of the plant (Robin, p. 70).

C4-C12 – petrol, also known as gasoline, consists of hydrocarbons with between 4 and 12 carbon atoms per molecule – hence, C4-C12. Many of the hydrocarbons consist of hazardous chemicals. Of course, petrol is produced from oil and we all know that oil is becoming harder and harder to come by.

Petrol is used in the machines which are needed to spray Monsanto’s herbicides and pesticides. It is used in the tractors to plough the vast fields of monoculture GMOs produced with Monsanto’s seeds and other machinery around an industrial farm.

MMT, methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MMT or MCMT) is an organomanganese compound with the formula (CH3C5H4)Mn(CO)3. MMT is manufactured by the global corporation Afton Chemical which produces petroleum additives that enhance the performance of lubricating oils and fuels to enhance their performance in machinery, vehicles, and other equipment. According to Afton Chemical, over 150 refiners in 45 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, Central and South America, as well as the United States and Canada, currently use mmt® to produce high quality gasoline.

With copper corrosion inhibitor, gear oil additive package, and antiwear agents sold under the name of HiTec from Afton Chemical and another component called a foam inhibitor or acrylic defoamer material, PC-2244 from Monsanto, farmers can have their JCB tractors, Caterpillar harvesters, herbicide/pesticide sprayer trailers, and for the really big operations herbicide/pesticide sprayer planes, maintained in top operating order.


GMOs, I have written an article about the terminology of genetically modified organisms which can be accessed here.

In 2005, Monsanto’s GM crops accounted for more than 90 percent of the estimated 222 million acres grown around the world (Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance, Clapp, 2010, p.229). In 2007, despite all the ‘troubles’ discussed in Clapp (2010) Chapter 8, such as anti-GM campaigning, GM crops spread to a further 28 million acres, again with 90 percent of the total 250 million acres having genetic traits patented by Monsanto (Robin, 2010, p.4). The rest of the abbreviations in the tree top branch out from GMOs.

DNA, that is, deoxyribonucleic acid, is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms with the exception of some viruses. The DNA is comprised of segments in a double helix including gene sequences which carry the information needed to construct other components of cells, such as proteins and RNA molecules.

Biotechnology corporations such as Monsanto seek to patent gene sequences and even fragments of gene sequences. If it can be shown that a process is new, involves an inventive step and is capable of an industrial application, a patent is likely to be granted (Genetics, Molecular Biology and the Law, p.165).

rDNA, Recombinant DNA is artificially created by microbiologists taking gene sequences from one organism and forcing them into another.

As an example of an rDNA product, I give Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean that was officially launched in 1993. The Roundup tolerant soybean gene cassette took “700,000 hours and an $80 million investment” to attain this genetic construct including the gene of interest (CP4 EPSPS – could have put this in the tree top too), the promoter 35S from the cauliflower mosaic virus and two other fragments of DNA derived from the petunia intended to control the production of the protein (as quoted in Robin, p.140).

RNA, Ribonucleic acid is essential for all forms of life. It comprises a long chain of components similar to DNA except RNA is mostly single-stranded. RNA molecules adopt very complex three-dimensional structures. Also, all organisms use messenger RNA (mRNA) to carry the genetic information that directs the synthesis of proteins.

Monsanto is using RNA technology and explains how it continues to investigate the use of RNA interference (RNAi) to improve plants used for food and feed on its website. Monsanto also tells us that “RNAi gene-specific studies on selected, agronomically important organisms may be necessary to address effects on non-target species such as nematodes or insects which are not inherently resistant to RNAi mediated by exogenous RNA.”

SNPs are single nucleotide polymorphisms (pronounced “snips”), and the most common type of genetic variation among people. “Each SNP represents a difference in a single DNA building block, called a nucleotide ... and may help scientists locate genes that are associated with disease.” SNPs can also be used as a novel genetic marker in plants.

Monsanto Company and Genaissance teamed up with the USDA to map the soybean genome with the aim of improving soybeans in 2005. The project's intent was to map the SNPs along with pre-existing SSR (simple sequence repeat) markers. The research was made available to U.S. soy breeders and geneticists.

Monsanto also used SNP technology in 2004 to improve pork. In addition, Monsanto and USDA scientists published an article titled an SNP haplotype associated with a gene resistant to Xanthomonas axonopodis pv. malvacearum in upland cotton in 2009.

ESTs or expressed sequence tags are “a short sub-sequence of a transcribed complimentary DNA (cDNA) sequence. They may be used to identify gene transcripts, and are instrumental in gene discovery and gene sequence determination. The identification of ESTs has proceeded rapidly, with approximately 65.9 million ESTs now available in public databases (e.g., GenBank 18/6/2010, all species).”

“EST collections have been derived from plants subjected to appropriate abiotic stresses” as was reported in a 2005 story about genomic bioprospecting in indigenous and exotic plants through EST discovery. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard arguments from Monsanto Corporation on the patentability of ESTs. (In re Fisher, Fed. Cir., No. 04-1465; May 3, 2005.)

According to the New Internationalist magazine in 1991, Monsanto was looking for up to a 1,000 medicinal plants used by the Jivaro peoples on the Brazilian-Peruvian border and the knowledge of the people who discovered them. Monsanto also used a plant known as “tiki uba” with anti-coagulant properties and then sought to patent the genetic make-up of the plant (Biodiversity, p. 67).

GURT is short for Genetic Use Restriction Technology, otherwise known as terminator technology. As the name suggests, it is a technique used in genetically modified plants to render the seeds from the plants sterile so that corporate interests can be protected.

V-GURT is where the plant variety produces sterile seeds so that farmers need to purchase seeds for future planting.

T-GURT is a second type of restriction at trait level. A crop is modified so that the genetic enhancement engineered into the crop does not function until the crop plant is treated with a chemical that is sold by the biotechnology company. Farmers can save seeds for use each year. However, they do not get to use the enhanced trait in the crop unless they purchase the activator compound.

GURT may be taken a step further with the so also called Zombie technology or reversible transgenic sterility. These genetically modified plants would require a chemical application to trigger seed fertility every year.

Monsanto made a pledge back in 1999 not to use terminator technology. Today, Monsanto’s pledge is that it will not commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops. However, in 2007, Monsanto acquired Delta and Pine Land which owned jointly with the US a patent titled, Control of Plant Gene _Expression - Patent No. 5,723,765 granted by the US Patent Office in March 1998. This patent is for cotton, a non-food crop and whether or not Monsanto used it in the 2009 Deltapine Class of 10 with six new cotton varieties is not evident, but seems likely. But at any rate, as long as Monsanto is in business, the terminator technology is looming which doesn’t bode at all well for biodiversity.